Toilets, Lifts and Snowsuits

Originally written in 2013

I used to know where certain shops in town were and where all the pubs were. Just a couple of months into parenthood I still knew where the pubs were (as I peered in through the window longingly) but I also was an expert on toilets and lifts. This was not mentioned in my antenatal classes (actually it was just one class but that’s another story), and nobody else said about it during the pregnancy but sure enough my Mastermind chosen topic has changed.

As a man I find it best to use the male toilets. I’m reasonably confident that using the ladies is frowned upon. I also tend to avoid disabled toilets due to my lack of a disability – I am the man who refuses to park in a disabled space at the supermarket even when it is the middle of the night, there are a hundred of them and I’m only popping in for milk. If a hundred disabled people were to turn up on some sort of nocturnal supermarket tour I would feel terrible if I was in one of their spaces. Anyway this causes a problem when you start visiting these toilets with your child. The problems are two fold – firstly the majority of the time you visit a toilet is because you want to change your baby’s nappy; you cannot do this in a urinal. Secondly on the odd occasion that you are popping to the loo to meet your own needs you still need to put the baby somewhere and you cannot put them in a urinal. And for some reason in 2010 many places still haven’t got to grips with dads taking out their children without the mothers being around. This must be because toilets and baby changing is a terribly boring subject until you find yourself stuck in a department store with a baby covered in poo that is.

So without knowing it you start assessing and evaluating toilets. Where are they? Do they have a baby changing area? How accessible are they? Automatic doors or do you have to push them and squeeze through with a pushchair? And then of course there is no point knowing about a wonderful toilet (yes there are such things) on floor 4 of a shopping centre if you only remember where the stairs or escalators are. You soon realise how much of an idiot you look when you get to the bottom of a staircase before you realise you have a buggy and you have to turn around pretending that you didn’t want to go up anyway. You then spend the next five minutes walking around searching for the lifts which are usually hidden behind the lingerie. “Why don’t you ask someone?” I hear you say – I don’t know why but you just don’t.

There is an upside to this odd acquisition of knowledge. I have noticed there seems to be a link between the quality toilet/baby change set up and the quality of café. Not long into a shopping trip I find myself saying “No it’s fine, I’ll pop in to Marks and Spencer and change her nappy – You know I find the changing room much easier in there… And why don’t I give her bottle while I’m there because I think there’s a bottle warmer there.” Safe in the knowledge that my wife’s quick pop to House of Fraser will take somewhere around half an hour and in just five minutes I can be sat in the café with a toasted cheese sandwich, a cup of coffee and a content baby having a feed. And of course the extra bonus of going to an M&S café… the doting old ladies who have all the time in the world to entertain your child.

Ok, to be honest it doesn’t always work. Anna was just two months old and we were finishing the Christmas shopping. It had got to mid-afternoon and she started to get grumpy, not quite as grumpy as I had become whilst shopping but she was well on her way. Of course I then suggested my wife has a break from the baby and say that I’ll take her off to change her nappy, give her a feed and see if I can get her to sleep. Five minutes later we were sat down in M&S chatting to a lady who thinks it’s “just wonderful” that I’m so confident to look after my own child for twenty minutes and how she wishes that men were allowed to do it in her day… What is a normal afternoon to me this woman seems to be comparing the abolition of apartheid or women getting the vote. In fact all the women in the M&S café think men with babies are the most amazing thing in the world – however don’t confuse their interest with trust. They will each come up to you and after getting over the shock of realising you are alone with a child they will proceed in telling you how to hold your child, the best way of burping them, how to dress them etc etc etc.

So after a change and a feed I was hoping to sit back and relax but she wasn’t settling. I felt a rumble and soon enough hidden beneath the cosy snow suit a present was waiting for me. But it will be fine – I am in Marks and Spencer after all. The best changing facilities in town! Off I trot, feeling the eyes of the old ladies on me – a mixture of admiration and concern. I park the buggy safely in the designated area and lift her out onto the changing mat. As I undo the snow suit the smell hits me – not just poo but putrid watery poo. Her eyes wide with interest, her grumpiness temporarily on hold as she watches to see how I will cope. So off comes the snow suit, brown suede on the outside, white and fluffy on the inside. Until now. Now it is brown suede on the outside, brown and soggy on the inside. From shoulder blades to toes it was everywhere. So out with the nappy bags and the clothes get removed. I’ve spread out by this point making full use of two nappy changing areas. I’ve created a clean zone and a dirty zone with separate sections within each zone. To an onlooker it must have looked like chaos but to me it was a system. Anna’s interest remained until it was time for the vest to come off – at this point she took crying to another level. I find myself there surrounded by excrement holding a completely naked poo covered baby in the air with no idea where to put her or how to clean her. All I kept thinking was I can’t put her in the clean zone (why I had become obsessed with this imaginary zone I cannot explain) and I can’t put her back in the dirty zone because she will never get clean. So I balance her in one hand and use about 400 wipes to clean her well enough that I allow her entry into the clean zone. Throughout all this grumpy men carrying shopping bags come and go politely ignoring everything that is going on and making sure they do nothing acknowledge me as if I am going to rope them in and insist they clean my baby if we make eye contact. I pull out fresh clothes and she is soon looking clean again but I realise I can’t put her back in the snowsuit because it is covered in crap. But I can’t not put her in it because it’s snowing outside and she is two months old. I carefully line the snowsuit with muslins and slip her back in.

Twenty minutes later we are sorted, I stroll out of the toilets feeling proud that from the outside nobody can tell what has just happened. I’ve done a good job. The old ladies look at me and whisper to each other “See, it took him twenty minutes to change one nappy”.

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Joe Ellis-Gage is a registered paediatric nurse who runs Mini First Aid Norfolk – a  local company running first aid classes for parents, grandparents etc., first aid classes for children and Certified First Aid Qualifications (Full 12 Hour Paediatric First Aid, Emergency Paediatric First Aid and Emergency First Aid at Work for Schools etc.). For more information head to the Mini First Aid Norfolk website or Mini First Aid Norfolk on Facebook

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